Belfast Taxi by Lee Henry
Lee Henry discovers a bygone Belfast with the help of the city's many and varied taxi drivers
All good travellers know that it’s only when you lace on the bum bag, strap on the sandals and slip into the shades for a trek through the old city streets that you really begin to get a feel for the true history of a place. For someone who lives in Belfast, but was not born there, such an adventure seemed a logical step in my quest to learn more about the forgotten history of Northern Ireland's capital city.
I wanted to discover more about the Belfast that existed before 1968 and the outbreak of the Troubles that so define modern Northern Ireland; the mighty industrial ghost of a Belfast in which the Titanic was built in one of the largest shipyards in the world.
I wanted to experience Victorian Belfast and meet the personalities who put Belfast on the map as the third most productive port in the UK behind Liverpool and London; a city in which so many of the things that we take for granted in the 21st century were first invented: air conditioning, the pneumatic tire and milk of magnesia, to name but a few.
Venture into certain areas of Belfast and the murals might provide you with all the history you care for, written large on gable walls and colour-coded for your convenience. Like Buckingham Palace in London or the Louvre in gay Paris, the murals have become Belfast's most sought after tourist attraction.
Individual paintings at times simple and satirical, at others stark and accomplished, their appeal lies in their ability to denote history via art and it is not difficult to grasp the reasons why tourists flock into east and west Belfast to appreciate these anonymous pieces of public art.
As memorials to Northern Ireland's recent, bloody past, the murals may pull in the tourist pounds, but they say very little about Belfast before 1968. And so I determined to bypass the murals and the peace wall, the Shankill and the Falls, and take an alternative tour of the city: one in which the obvious tourist sites become irrelevant and the unfamiliar take centre stage.
First I needed a tour guide who was up to the challenge, and it didn’t take long to find one. He drove a big, cherry red taxi and his name was Billy Scott. A licensed blue badge tour guide, Scott is a Belfast boy, born and bred. Charismatic and informative, he was only too happy to take a detour into bygone Belfast: the Belfast of cobbled streets, the linen works and horse-drawn carriages.
Blue badge tour guides are selected and screened by the Institute of Tourist Guiding in London. Like all blue badge guides, Scott had undergone a training regime of written and practical examinations in order to achieve the necessary qualifications for the job.
And so the stage was set for our trip into pre-Troubles Belfast and the unseen city in which over a quarter of a million people live and breath. A chilly Belfast in which – irony of ironies – air conditioning was invented in the Sirrocco Works in the docks area at the beginning of the 20th Century.
A Belfast in which, consequentially, the Royal Victoria Hospital became the first building in the world to be fitted with an air conditioning system. And more fittingly, perhaps, a Belfast in which one William Willis invented the immersion heater.
A Belfast in which armies of bleached blonde young women pose and pout entirely unaware that, locked nearby within the walls of the Ulster Museum lies an Egyptian mummy, Princess Takabuti, the oldest bleached blonde known to man.
A Belfast once recognised as the pre-eminent industrial centre of Ireland, where the Harland and Wolfe shipyards once employed some 35,000 people. And a Belfast in which the late George Best, nicknamed 'the fifth Beatle' and considered by many to have been the greatest footballer of all time, was born just a stone’s throw from Shorts Aircraft Factory, where the ejector seat was invented.
Above me at almost every turn, buildings were marked with blue plaques commemorating the achievements of Belfast-born men and women; around every corner, statues and buildings stood tall as symbols to the Belfast of old; on the horizon, Samson and Goliath craned above the city like huge monuments to Northern Ireland's history of engineering.
In a 2004 survey, residents of Belfast City were found to be the most contented city-dwellers in the British Isles. With 30 years of violence now firmly behind them, and a capital city to rediscover, perhaps that’s no surprise. What I learned on my travels through the old streets is that with the emergence of the new, inclusive Belfast might finally come the appreciation of the old.